Does an opensource approach help e-democracy?

The relationship between open-source development methods and promotion of e-participation is often taken for granted; indeed many e-participation projects are funded on the condition that the code created is open-source. These notes for a possible research project question that assumption.

Starting by defining some terms. ‘Everyone’ knows that the term e-democracy needs to be distinguished from ‘e-Voting’ and to be understood in the context of the debate of the extent of participation that is supported – from informing citizens through to fully engaging them in the decision making process: this is called e-participation for clarity (Macintosh 2004).

Here it is enough to treat open source (OSS) and freeware together – I will use the common acronym FLOSS. The main point they share is that the source code is available to those implementing the software, and they are permitted to modify and re-distribute it as they wish, meaning that there is no commercial benefit to be gained by selling a FLOSS application; alternative revenue streams are required for sustainability.

The relationship between FLOSS development, internal democracy and e-participation

Superficially, FLOSS development methods provide a model for online democracy: however, while FLOSS projects may be open (in that the output is visible, and often the internal debates that underpin it), and ‘free’ (in that there is no formal control over what can be done with the code that is created); they are almost always successful precisely because of their non-democratic nature: they are led by a (generally self-appointed) individual or small group and are highly meritocratic (eg Elliot & Scacchi, 2003). Research has been carried out to investigate why FLOSS communities are dominated by young men (Ghosh & Glott 2006 – FLOSSPOLS): it is a fact that they do not represent the wider population. Where the public sector has implemented OSS systems, the driver has often been cost savings in the form of avoided license fees or perceived compliance with open data standards (eg Kovács, Drozdik et al 2004), rather than supporting democracy per se.

Many successful e-participation projects have taken advantage of the commercial but free-to-use services that have been appearing as part of the Web2.0 phenomenon including YouTube, MySpace and many blogging services such as TypePad or WordPress.

This leaves us with the question: does OSS have any special role in designing or building successful e-democracy (or e-participation) systems: how can we characterise the intersection between OSS, participation and democracy?

One approach

It would be interesting analyse OSS e-participation systems against previously established frameworks to establish common success factor, particularly focussing on the policy options available to public authorities (PAs) within the EU.

Researches are beginning to gain an understanding of how ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) are being used to support an participation process (for instance Tambouris et al, 2007, Peart & Diaz, nd) Broadly speaking, e-participation applications have been categorised around six or so dimensions, ranging from the technology used through to the political process that they support; the number varies depending on who is proposing the framework.

At the same time, a considerable amount of work has been carried out on the potential (positive) impact of OSS technologies on the EU economies generally (FLOSSPOLS, 2006), and effective approaches for PAs to engage with the OSS development processes in particular (Ghosh, Glott et al, 2004), highlighting the need for “users in PAs [to] interact extensively with developers”.

Similarly, the POSS project (Schmitz and Castiaux 2002) investigated the role of FLOSS in the public sector (focusing on Europe), and the appropriate policy response generally, particularly in sharing applications between PAs, taking advantage of one of the perceived advantages of OSS and recognising that PAs frequently use non-standard applications, or applications with no commercial equivalent. Nine factors in establishing the suitability of OSS for sharing between PAs can be applied to e-participation applications.

Generally they find that “the belief that any software can be given as open source, and then maintained and updated for free by an army of contributing volunteers is an illusion”: it is not clear that e-participation applications are an exception.

Combining these two frameworks could allow us to characterise the factors that affect the relative success of different strategies for implementing e-participation system, establishing the role that OSS applications and processes have had. The analysis could be carried out through a survey of successful e-participation applications.

Selected Bibliography

  • Elliott, M.S. and W. Scacchi. 2003. Free Software Developers as an Occupational Community: Resolving Conflicts and Fostering Collaboration. Presented at GROUP’03 Conference, Sanibel Island, FL.
  • Ghosh, R. A., R. Glott, et al. (2004). Guideline for Public Administrations on partnering with free software developers. (
  • Ghosh, R. A. and R. Glott (2006). FLOSSPOLS D25: Final Integrated Report. Free/Libre and Open Source Software: Policy Support. Maastricht, MERIT, University of Maastricht: 79.
  • Kovács, G.L., S. Drozdik, P. Zuliani, and G. Succi. 2005. Open Source Software for the Public Administration. Presented at Workshop on Computer Science and Information Technologies CSIT’2004, , 2004, Budapest, Hungary.
  • Macintosh, A. (2004). Characterizing E-Participation in Policy-Making. in Proceedings of the 37th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.
  • Peart, M. N., J. R. Diaz (nd) Comparative Project on Local e-Democracy Initiatives in Europe and North America. Research Centre on Direct Democracy, Faculty of Law, University of Geneva (
  • Schmitz, P.-E. and S. Castiaux (2002). Pooling open source software (POSS). UNISYS. (
  • Tambouris E., N. Liotas and K. Tarabanis (2007) A framework for Assessing eParticipation Projects and Tools, Proceedings of the 40th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, 4-6 January 2007.

About Peter Cruickshank

Lecturer in the School of Computing and a member of the Centre for Social Informatics at Edinburgh Napier University, Scotland. Interested in information systems, learning, politics, society, security and where they intersect. My attempts at rounding out my character include food, cinema, running, history and, together with my lovely wife, bringing up a cat and a couple of kids.
This entry was posted in e-democracy, e-government, e-participation, Europe, open-source, opensource and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Does an opensource approach help e-democracy?

  1. Pingback: Open source, open data, open options? | Spartakan

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